A fascinating debate has emerged about the future of Wikipedia and Google’s rival project that promotes bylined knols (or units of knowledge). This is from Google’s blog introducing the concept:
A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read. The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors. We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing.
A quick blog search shows many people predicting the “death knol” for Wikipedia. Others warn that we shouldn’t leap to conclusions since other Google products such as Froogle and Google Apps have failed to kill their rivals.
But Google has a lot going for it in this project. As one blogger said, the Wikipedia rival would allow Google to control the three levels of the searching experience: the front door (Google), the search results, and now the content you get when you click on those results. Google would have the money and power to promote its own units of knowledge and with the use of advertising could create a stronger business model than could Wikipedia.
We have debated the utility of anonymity extensively in our blog. Many have suggested that anonymous postings allow people to express themselves or inform the public without jeopardizing their own security. Theoretically, this use of the anonymous post works as long as the topic is not an ad hominem attack. But the weakness of Wikipedia is that anonymous editors post, modify, and even delete whole entries without much accountability.
Google would seek to avoid this pitfall by allowing as many entries as the market produces and let the market decide (through) ranking which entry is best. It better uses the power of the invisible hand.
One thing I have not seen the bloggers talk about yet though:
Beyond the business model, another huge strength of Google’s approach is that it more closely resembles a traditional encyclopedia and in that way becomes more useful in the classroom and citations. If you have credible authors writing bylined posts, you get credible information.
Many teachers and professors have told me that they have banned Wikipedia from the classroom, homework assignments, and paper citations. If Google gives space to acknowledged experts, it is actually eating into the market of encyclopedias. It is spreading knowledge. And when someone asks you where you learned a piece of information, you would no longer have to say meekly, Wikipedia. You could name an expert.